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Naipaul push to funds drive for Tejpal’s weekly Tehelka

London, May 25: Plans by the investigative journalist, Tarun Tejpal, to launch a new weekly newspaper, Tehelka on the Weekend, with an accompanying website on October 2 received the warm endorsement yesterday of the Nobel Prize winner, Sir V.S. Naipaul.

It took place at a private luncheon at Hyver Hall, the Hertfordshire home of the increasingly influential British Asian businessman, H.S. Narula, and his wife, Surina, who recently returned from holding court in Cannes on board their yacht, the 60-ft Surina.

The couple provided Tejpal with a platform to explain why he wanted funds from overseas Indians — $5,000 specifically from “founder subscribers” — to safeguard “independent media” in India.

While Tehelka’s battle with an allegedly vengeful Indian government has been well charted in India, following its investigations into match fixing in cricket and sting operations to expose corruption in defence procurement, the developments which had reduced the staff of the once flourishing website from 120 to three and brought it financial ruin had to be outlined at some length to British Asians by Tejpal yesterday.

Guests at the luncheon included the steel tycoon, Lakshmi Mittal, although his presence does not necessarily mean he is a potential backer. Another businessman present was Kartar Lalvani, who owns a company making vitamin supplements and who may well assist Tejpal.

Cricketer Kapil Dev, a guest of the Narulas and who has been himself the subject of a Tehelka investigation in the past, was praised for being “big hearted” enough to come to the gathering.

He was even press-ganged into making a little speech, praising Tejpal’s broad aims. Kapil wished Tejpal the best of luck and said: “If you are clean, you have nothing to worry about.”

Kapil implied he had been clean and therefore had little to worry about, although he acknowledged he had experienced a very rough patch in his life.

Kapil said he did not want to speak for too long. “I’m not Sunil Gavaskar who bats for two days,” he joked.

Kapil and Tejpal didn’t actually shake hands but Tejpal also responded generously to the spirit of reconciliation and said that he considered Kapil to be “India’s greatest cricketer”.

After Tejpal had spoken, he was followed by one of his strongest supporters, the lawyer Ram Jethmalani. “I like Tarun,” confessed the lawyer. “I support him fully. I support Tarun because Tarun is a cause.”

To laughter, he humorously disclosed the extent of his support: “Some people say I am the most expensive lawyer in India. But Tarun is the only client who has got money out of his lawyer.”

The Narulas’ drawing room was hushed as it was now Naipaul’s turn to utter very few but well-chosen words. Naipaul, who has been on the board of Tehelka, began by saying that Tejpal “had spoken of the greater good”.

Naipaul’s point was almost philosophical: “The moment there is not greater good in any country, there is no country.”

He was in favour of Tejpal’s scheme to have a “cooperative independent press” funded by its subscribers.

Naipaul concluded his brief remarks by making another philosophical observation. The future of any country could be judged by its intellectual life, he said. “Some countries have no intellectual life,” he commented, though he did not want to mention any by name (possibly he had Pakistan in mind).

To India, he gave a cheer and a half: “There’s the beginning of intellectual life in India.”

And on Tejpal’s efforts to start a new newspaper and website, he said: “If it does not come off, I feel sorry for India.”

Naipaul came accompanied by his wife, Lady Nadira Naipaul, who was herself a journalist in Pakistan when she met her future husband.

In his 30-minute talk, Tejpal argued the need for “crusading and constructive journalism” which would pose “uncomfortable questions” and act as a check on the abuse of power.

He disclosed he wanted to begin his nationwide campaign on behalf of his new paper on August 15 when potential subscribers and advertisers would be urged to pay money up front.

Financial independence would enable the organisation to have both “teeth and legs” — teeth to bite into wrongdoers and legs to withstand the backlash.

The advertising agency, &M (Ogilvy & Mather), had assigned 30 staff to work for his campaign, free of charge at this stage, revealed Tejpal.

Both Naipaul and Jethmalani will serve on Tejpal’s advisory board. Others identified by Tejpal included “Anna Hazare, Kuldip Nayar, Swami Agnivesh, Mark Tully, Alyque Padamsee, Kapil Sibal, Mahesh Bhatt, Julio Ribeiro and Shyam Benegal”.

Guests leaving yesterday’s luncheon, at which only vegetarian food was served as a mark of respect to Naipaul who does not eat meat these days, were handed two documents.

One invited them to become international founder subscribers. The other asked for individual donations of $5,000.

“A billion Indians deserve media that has the will to tell them the truth at any cost,” it said.

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